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Monsters from the Vault

Last year ARTicle asked Art Institute staffers to choose some of the spookiest artworks on display in our galleries. This year we thought we’d take a look through the vaults for artworks so creepy we have to keep them locked away in the basement.

Katsukawa Shunjô is known as one of Japan’s great artists in the genre of actor portraits. This color woodblock depicts such actors performing Vestiges of Pine and Cherry at the Nakamura Theater in 1783. The story goes: A monk named Seigen gets expelled from the temple as a result of his wild passion for the Cherry Princess. Reduced to poverty Seigen is eventually murdered in his lowly country hut. Blaming her for his death, the monk’s ghost haunts the Cherry Princess donning (what else?) a black skeleton suit.

French artist Odilon Redon once said, “All my originality consists in making the most improbable creatures live like human beings.” These improbable creatures—including cactus men, flying tadpoles, and crying spiders—have the uncanny power of dreams or hallucinations. Redon calls this unfortunate beast “a Sort of Smiling and Hideous Cyclops.”

Imagist Seymour Rosofsky, an alumnus of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, highlights his admiration for Spanish portrayers of the macabre Goya and Diego Velázquez in this tragicomic depiction entitled Homage to Spain, Thalidomide Children and Others. It’s no wonder he and colleagues like Leon Golub were collectively known as the “Monster Roster.”

This playfully perverse work features a large pink snake which contemporary artist Mike Kelley called “a pseudo-child, a cutified sexless being which represents the adult's perfect model of a child—a neutered pet.” Kelley’s work often subverts sentimental associations with youth and innocence. In this case, a hypersexualized monster is seemingly giving birth to a Frankenstein assemblage of discarded stuffed animals.

Katsukawa Shunshô. The Actors Ichikawa Danjuro V as a Skeleton, Spirit of the Renegade Monk Seigen (left), and Iwai Hanshiro IV as Princess Sakura (right), in the Joruri "Sono Omokage Matsu ni Sakura" (Vestiges of Pine and Cherry), from Part Two of the Play Edo no Hana Mimasu Soga (Flower of Edo: An Ichikawa Soga), Performed at the Nakamura Theater from the First Day of the Second Month, 1783, c. 1783. Clarence Buckingham Collection.

Odilon Redon. Siren Coming out of the Waves, Dressed in Flames, plate 4 of 8 from "Les Origines", 1883. The Stickney Collection.

Seymour Rosofsky. Homage to Spain, Thalidomide Children and Others (detail), 1965. Gift of Dr. David G. Ostrow.

Mike Kelley. Eviscerated Corpse, 1989. Gift of Lannan Foundation.